Mexico Captures Reputed Leader Of La Familia Cartel

The Mexican government said the arrest of "The Monkey Mendez" was a final blow to the leadership of La Familia cartel. There was a $2.5 million reward for his capture.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Mexico, police have captured one of the country's most wanted drug lords, the leader of the brutal La Familia cartel. He's known in the drug world as El Chango, or The Monkey. And there was a $2.5 million reward for his capture.

NPR's Mexico correspondent Jason Beaubien joins us.

Good morning, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What happened?

BEAUBIEN: This is Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas, and he's the leader of the La Familia cartel. As you say, he's known as El Chango, The Monkey. He was captured without incident, without a gun battle, which has become quite rare for a lot of these top leaders. And he was taken into custody yesterday in the center of Mexico.

MONTAGNE: The president of Mexico is calling this a big blow against organized crime. How important is this?

BEAUBIEN: It is quite significant. La Familia was already starting to fall apart. In December, another major leader of La Familia was killed in a two-day gun battle that left about 11 people dead. The organization seemed to be just splintering, so this very well might be the end of La Familia as we know it.

MONTAGNE: Tell us a little bit about La Familia, because it's a fairly unique criminal organization.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. In the landscape of the whole Mexican drug cartels, this was really a strange one. It was very focused on Michoacan, the southern state of Michoacan, where they're based. At times, they even called it La Familia Michoacana.

They ran social programs. They had sort of this pseudo-Christian ideology. You know, they talked about getting people off drugs and banning the local sale of drugs, while at the same time, their entire focus was on moving drugs and selling tons of cocaine and methamphetamines inside the United States.

They funded schools. They vowed that they were going to improve Michoacan. They'd even go on the radio and talk about what they wanted to do there. And then they would be terrifying locals by rolling severed heads into discos and slaughtering federal police and leaving their bodies all along the federal highways.

So it was a very violent organization. And it's quite, quite different than some of the organizations that focused just on moving and selling drugs.

MONTAGNE: One thing about this capture, it's, of course, in the midst of a years-long war against the cartels. The president of Mexico continues to get a lot of criticism over his strategy of attacking them with the military. What does this arrest say about that strategy? Does it say it's working?

BEAUBIEN: There's always, I think, going to be debate about whether or not this strategy is working. You've got almost 40,000 people who've been killed in this four-plus year drug war of President Calderon's. But in terms of his strategy, in terms of what he's trying to do to break up these big cartels, this is certainly a victory.

In March of 2009, they put out a list of the top drug dealers, the top leaders of the cartels. And on that list, there were 37 people. And they put out big rewards for them. El Chango was one of them. And so far, they've captured 21 of those 37. And so they say that they are managing to actually succeed at knocking the heads off of some of these cartels.

MONTAGNE: Jason, thanks very much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: We've been talking with NPR's Jason Beaubien.

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